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John A. Dahlgren Collection

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: --
Date: circa 1967

Biographical History

John A. Dahlgren (1809-1870) was an American naval officer and inventor of ordnance. Dahlgren, of Swedish ancestry, grew up in Philadelphia, where he showed considerable intellectual ability in the school work of his youth. His early enthusiasm led him to enter the Navy. He made several cruises, and in 1834 worked on a survey of the United States coastline. He was promoted to lieutenant and, following a short period of ill health, began ordnance duty in Washington.

That year, 1847, was the beginning of an association with the Naval Bureau of Ordnance that was to last sixteen years. Over those years Dahlgren became Chief of Ordnance and received worldwide recognition as a man of great inventive intelligence in the fields of weaponry and ammunition. He developed a number of inventions and techniques, and wrote several books on boat howitzers, percussion locks, shells and shell guns and similar subjects. Dahlgren became famous for his invention of two new guns, smoothbores which took nine and eleven inch shells. These guns, popularly called "Dahlgrens," contributed decisively to the firepower that gave naval supremacy to the Union in the Civil War.

The Civil War brought Dahlgren's naval career into prominence. He was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, an extremely important post both for ordnance and for defense of the city of Washington. Dahlgren worked in close contact with Lincoln and many of his cabinet, including Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells and others. Dahlgren already knew or would meet in the course of the war most of the prominent figures in the Union army and navy. He was soon promoted to captain and in 1863 to rear admiral in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. This position took him away from Washington and into the field of action. He commanded a naval assault on Charleston, an attack which because of its only partial success, provoked some criticism. He also led an expedition up the St. John's River in Florida, co-operated with Sherman in the capture of Savannah, and participated in the final occupation of Charleston. After the war, Dahlgren spent some years as commander of the South Pacific Squadron, and later returned to his old positions as Chief of Ordnance and Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. He died in 1870.

Dahlgren married Mary Bunker in 1839, and they had seven children before her death in 1855. The most famous of these was Ulric, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Union army distinguishing himself at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Second Bull Run and Gettysburg. When he died at the age of twenty-one in 1864, Ulric Dahlgren was a well-known Union war hero. Dahlgren married his second wife, Madeleine Vinton in 1865. They had three children. She wrote a biography of her husband, Memoir of John A. Dahlgren, after his death, as well as a number of other books. In her later years, Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren was a prominent figure in Washington literary circles.

A genealogical chart of the Dahlgren family appears at the end of this finding aid. This is an incomplete chart, meant only as a general guideline. The individuals represented in this collection are noted in capital lettering.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The John A. Dahlgren Papers are organized in five sections: correspondence, memorabilia, military records, writings and miscellany. The materials date from 1823 to 1945, with the bulk originating in the period 1855-1870.

Correspondence (boxes 1-2) dates from 1836 to 1905; an index to correspondents is provided at the end of this finding aid. Dahlgren corresponded with a number of men prominent in military and naval affairs and in ordnance. Most of his incoming correspondence, concentrated in the year 1855, comprises the contents of a letter book labeled "Correspondence in regard to Manufacture of the New Ordnance-- IX in and XI in guns." There are about 180 letters, which deal very largely with developments and problems in ordnance. Notable among those who wrote to Dahlgren are Silas Bent, Percival Drayton, Henry Du Pont, Andrew Hull Foote, Robert Bennet Forbes, James Harlan, Catesby Ap Roger Jones, Alfred Mordecai, Robert P. Parrot, George A. Steers, and Henry Augustus Wise.

Dahlgren's outgoing correspondence, nineteen items, dates from 1836 to 1865. Notable correspondents here include Henry Bowen Anthony, Charles Henry Davis, Andrew Hull Foote, John Parker Hale, William Nicholson Jeffers and Gideon Welles. These include a few letters of orders to Dahlgren's naval subordinates and a small number of U.S. military telegrams. Of special interest is Dahlgren's letter of February 1865 to Welles, offering his resignation from the command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in the belief that General Quincy Adams Gillmore, an old personal enemy, was to take command in the Charleston area.

There is also correspondence from other members of Dahlgren's family. His second wife, Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, his daughter Ulrica, his son Eric Dahlgren all corresponded with Charles Cowley in the later decades of the 1800's. Cowley had served under Dahlgren and was the head of the veterans' organization of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Their correspondence was chiefly concerned with securing a monument and other honors to Dahlgren after his death. There is one letter written by Ulric Dahlgren in his childhood. In addition, there is a small amount of Charles Cowley's own correspondence with other veterans.

Memorabilia section (box 2), 1823-1891, contains a folder of assorted ephemera, a genealogical record of a family named Lander, some newspaper clippings and magazine separates, and one of Dahlgren's school notebooks which has a few pages of diary entries at the end. There are also two photographs of Dahlgren.

Military records (box 2) date from 1844 to 1864. These relate to Dahlgren's naval service, including orders, memoranda, a report and a book which contains shipboard regulations, procedures and mathematical tables.

Writings (boxes 2-4) date from 1829 to 1945. The writings of John A. Dahlgren himself, including thirteen volumes of his diaries and one journal, form the bulk of this section. Dahlgren's diaries, which date from 1834 to 1870, were kept with great regularity and in extensive detail. The volumes from the Civil War years are especially notable as rich sources for information on the war generally, on its naval and ordnance aspects, and on Abraham Lincoln.

In the early years of the war, before his reassignment to the Atlantic Squadron took him away from Washington, Dahlgren was quite close to Lincoln. His diaries note numerous dinners at the White House, outings with Lincoln by carriage or boat, any many meetings and conferences. There are frequent entries recording Lincoln's opinions of various generals, his interest in modern weaponry, his problems with his cabinet and Congress. Dahlgren also describes Lincoln at ease, taking breakfast in his drawers and telling stories, or cruising up the Potomac and test-firing one of the "Dahlgrens" himself. He often quotes or paraphrases Lincoln.

The diary pages contain mention of many other famous men of the Civil War, including Stanton, Chase, Wells, Sherman, McClellan, Ericsson and others whom Dahlgren knew. Even when he was not personally involved with an individual or an event, Dahlgren often wrote a well-informed account of opinion in these volumes. He wrote extensive discussions of strategy and new developments in weapons and ammunition, and occasionally he wrote about the political and social aspects of the war.

In the years preceding and following the Civil War, Dahlgren's diaries form a record of his naval assignments and ordnance work, as well as of his family and personal life. One notable entry, in October 1866, contains his copy of a letter of O. A. Brownson to Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren commenting on Dahlgren's manuscript of his book about his son, Memoir of Ulric Dahlgren. Dahlgren's single journal, the daily record of a specific activity stems from his 1829 cruise on the U.S.S. Ontario to the Mediterranean.

In addition to Dahlgren's writings, there are a few notes by Charles Cowley, apparently for a book on the Civil War, while Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren is represented by her 1861 diary and a piece of verse. There is one folder of miscellaneous fragments of writings, and one holograph draft of a book whose author is unidentified. There is also a modern biography of Admiral Dahlgren by C. Stewart Peterson, who used Dahlgren's diaries in his research.

Two folders of Miscellany (box 4) contain, among other things, several bookplates and illustrations, a map of the southern hemisphere, a few receipts, and a copy of a petition to Congress to erect a monument to Dahlgren.

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence has been arranged chronologically; an index to correspondents is provided at the end of this finding aid. Memorabilia and military records are in alphabetical order by topic, type, or title. Writings are in Dahlgren's original order.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

Special Collections Research Center has several other collections of Civil War material. Please refer to the SCRC Subject Index for a complete listing.

Subject Headings


Dahlgren, John Adolphus Bernard, 1809-1870.
Dahlgren, Madeleine Vinton.
Drayton, Percival, 1812-1865.
Foote, Andrew H. (Andrew Hull), 1806-1863.
Forbes, R. B. (Robert Bennet), 1804-1889.
Parrott, R. P. (Robert Parker), 1804-1877.
Wise, Henry Augustus.

Corporate Bodies

United States. Navy -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.
United States. Navy -- Officers -- Diaries.
United States. Navy -- Officers.
United States. Navy.


Naval art and science.
Naval gunnery.
Ordnance, Naval.


United States -- History, Naval.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

John A. Dahlgren Collection
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase, 1969-1971.

Table of Contents



Military records



Selected index to correspondence


Selected index to correspondence

Key: --- indicates unknown; JAD is John A. Dahlgren